Durango’s worst flood ever

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Durango’s worst flood ever

Southwest Colorado was cut off by 1911 deluge
In this iconic photo looking south from the Main Avenue bridge at 4 p.m. Oct. 5, 1911, townspeople are checking the high water that is washing through what is now Rotary Park. By 9:30 p.m., the water was higher than the tops of the arches. The bridge, built in 1906 for $32,000, was one of only three bridges in Durango that survived.
This postcard from the Nina Heald Webber collection is a photo taken by Pen-Dike Studio after the Flood of 1911 destroyed 22 miles of track, including the road bed in many places, on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad between Durango and Silverton.
This footbridge over the Animas River was being washed out at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 5, 1911, while people gathered to watch at the top of the stairs. The water level didn’t reach its peak of 8 feet above flood level until five hours later.
The Lerader residence was washed off its foundation and is lodged against a tree. The Main Avenue bridge is to the far left. Reports at the time said, “This place had many fine flowers, shrubs, trees and a lawn. There is now no soil left, just stone and gravel.”
The Flood of 1911 had already begun to recede when this picture of water rushing between two houses was taken.
Durango residents, far left, check out the remnants of a railroad bridge that was washed out during the Flood of 1911. The bridge was located near the spot where the U.S. Highway 160 bridge now crosses the Animas just south of the DoubleTree Hotel.
News stories recount devastation flood caused

Norman Maclean ends his novella A River Runs Through It with these words: “Eventually all things merge into one and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
After the 1911 flood in the San Juan Mountains, residents of Southwest Colorado also were haunted by waters.
Our floods periodically come in the fall. The 1911 flood affected every town on every river throughout the Western Slope because it had been a wet summer, and September got even wetter. Though historical reports from a century ago lack the precision of modern flow measurements, the accounts are staggering.
On July 18, 1911, Lightner Creek raged at twice the size of the Animas River. By early October, the Animas reached three-quarters of a mile beyond its normal river bed and lapped at the orchard just below Trimble Hot Springs. At the height of the flood, the Animas River may have raced through Durango at 25,000 cubic feet per second.
The storm centered near Gladstone above Silverton, which reported more than 8½ inches of rain.
The unprecedented storm fed numerous rivers and creeks running out of the San Juan Mountains. At Ouray, it rained for 36 hours, blowing heavy timbers out of high-country mines and sweeping them down the Uncompahgre River. All the mines at Ironton, Red Mountain, Camp Bird and Sneffels had heavy flooding.
On Oct. 6, 1911, the Mancos Times-Tribune reported, “One of the severest of the many severe storms of the season burst upon this section of the country continuing through the entire night and from reports we can get over the wires every stream in the Southwest is swollen to enormous size,” with the Dolores River “higher than it has ever been known.” Personal tragedies included loss of life, buildings and livestock swept away, and haystacks, grain fields and pumpkins loose upon the turbulent waters.
The Bayfield Blade described two men who drowned in Mill Creek trying to break a logjam. “The men were thrown into the torrent and went down with the whirling wreckage,” a story read. Jacob Dowell was never seen again.
Mr. B.F. Turner became trapped “with his feet caught in the forks of a heavy tree and held a prisoner” to the horror of his wife and friends. They threw a rope to him and tried to pull him loose or keep him above water. “But all in vain. Mr. Turner realized that the end was near, and shouting some final messages to his wife and bidding her and the little group farewell, calmly and bravely awaited the summons. The chill of the water, the pain of a wrenched ankle, the exhaustion of the struggle soon claimed him.”
In La Plata Canyon, a reporter for the Mancos Times-Tribune wrote with more humor. By Oct. 10, 1911, he wrote, “This is the fourth flood witnessed by the quill driver (writing by hand with a quill pen dipped in ink) in this canon and while the sight is terribly terrific and awe inspiring we feel that we have seen enough in that line.” Constant rains flung 200- to 300-ton boulders standing 15 to 20 feet high down Boren Creek.
Flooding between South Fork and Pagosa Springs destroyed the original dirt route over Elwood Pass that followed the San Juan River. State highway engineers never again wanted to contend with such wreckage so they rerouted the road, our U.S. Highway 160, over the top of Wolf Creek Pass, the route we now take.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

On the net

To see the flood plain mapping approved in 2010, visit www.laplata.co.us. Click on e-services and select ArcIMS Interactive Mapping. On the map, select the area in the county you want to view and zoom in. Click on Layers and select Floodplain Information. Click on Refresh Map.

Durango’s worst flood ever

In this iconic photo looking south from the Main Avenue bridge at 4 p.m. Oct. 5, 1911, townspeople are checking the high water that is washing through what is now Rotary Park. By 9:30 p.m., the water was higher than the tops of the arches. The bridge, built in 1906 for $32,000, was one of only three bridges in Durango that survived.
This postcard from the Nina Heald Webber collection is a photo taken by Pen-Dike Studio after the Flood of 1911 destroyed 22 miles of track, including the road bed in many places, on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad between Durango and Silverton.
This footbridge over the Animas River was being washed out at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 5, 1911, while people gathered to watch at the top of the stairs. The water level didn’t reach its peak of 8 feet above flood level until five hours later.
The Lerader residence was washed off its foundation and is lodged against a tree. The Main Avenue bridge is to the far left. Reports at the time said, “This place had many fine flowers, shrubs, trees and a lawn. There is now no soil left, just stone and gravel.”
The Flood of 1911 had already begun to recede when this picture of water rushing between two houses was taken.
Durango residents, far left, check out the remnants of a railroad bridge that was washed out during the Flood of 1911. The bridge was located near the spot where the U.S. Highway 160 bridge now crosses the Animas just south of the DoubleTree Hotel.
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